The rights and wrongs of return

The rights and wrongs of return

This is part of a two-part discussion on Israel’s Law of Return by Alex Stein, a young progressive Zionist oleh, who blogs at the Guardian’s Weblog:

Why should I, a Jew from north London, be permitted to take up Israeli citizenship, when that right is denied to a Palestinian who languishes in a refugee camp in Lebanon? Especially when I acknowledge that a large majority of those that left in 1948 were ethnically cleansed by Israeli forces. This is the crux of the issue, and I shall attempt to confront it head on. In my last piece, I tried to demonstrate how Israel’s law of return is compatible with universal norms. In this article, I shall suggest that it is neither racist nor unjust to deny the right of return to Palestinian refugees. According to Salman Abu Sitta, the Palestinian right of return is sacred, legal and possible. I believe him to be mistaken on all three counts.

If it were sacred, we would expect the same standard to be held for similar cases. Around 16.5 million Germans were expelled from their homes in central and eastern Europe following the second world war (with around two million killed). Who calls for their right of return? Well over 10 million people were violently displaced during the partition of India in 1947, making it possibly the largest single instance of ethnic cleansing in history. Who calls for their right of return? And, of course, the Jewish exodus from Arab lands, much of which was caused by persecution. But we only hear calls for the Palestinian right of return. This is because the demand is motivated neither by justice nor concern for the refugees, as advocates claim, but by the desire to destroy the Jewish state. [Stein is being harsh, but the world’s crocodile tears (especially from the UN) on the Palestinian refugees, unto the nth generation, is both disproportionate when compared with other such problems and ineffective– Ed.]

Whatever the motivations, though, this would not change the legality of the issue. Advocates of the right of return insist that it is an inalienable right under international law. But this is not so clear. In a short piece, it is impossible to cover all the issues in the legal debate. But I hope the following will at least demonstrate that there is an unresolved debate regarding the question of whether international law demands the right of return. UNGA Resolution 194 famously stated:
“That the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practical date.”

For a supposedly unequivocal demand, it is worth remembering who supported and who opposed resolution 194. The Arab states rejected it, as they believed it implied recognition of Israel. So, until 1988, did the PLO. Israel accepted it. This demonstrates that the meaning of the resolution was contested. The Israeli government, after doing its best to remove as many Palestinians as possible, would surely not have accepted a resolution which called for it to allow them back. And ultimately, whatever its meaning, a General Assembly resolution is not binding, a crucial fact which is often forgotten.

Stein’s other essay on the Law of Return, “Homeward Bound,” is also online at the Guardian’s Comment Is Free Weblog.

By | 2007-03-28T04:11:00-04:00 March 28th, 2007|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous March 29, 2007 at 12:13 am - Reply

    Actually, go the links for the Guardian’s Comment is Free for both essays, and read the comments. They are far more enlightening than Alex Stein’s straighforward rehashing of the standard line.


  2. Ralph Seliger April 1, 2007 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure how much Alex rehashes “the standard line” here, but there is a disturbing monotone in many of the comments about Israel existing on “stolen land.” For people who hold this view, there can be no real two-state solution, because the Jewish people are seen as interlopers who simply invaded and stole another people’s country.

    This is an unfair and totally ahistorical view. The “Jewish state” endorsed by the UN in 1947 was not stolen from anyone. And as for “invaders,” it was the Arab side that took up arms against the Jews, first and foremost, to block their desire for refuge and self-determination. It was the Arab side that went to war in response to the UN partition plan and it was they who suffered primarily because their effort to destroy the Jewish community failed.

    Both sides committed wrongs in the course of the war and eventually the Jews may be said to have committed more wrongs — but this was because they won a war that had been forced upon them. It’s difficult for the winners of a hard-fought war to be generous to the losers, or to have the foresight to see beyond the conflict.

    Although Palestinian Arabs have a long history in the land, they have never been sovereign there and even their identity as a Palestinian Arab people (as distinct from subjects of the Ottoman Empire, or South Syrians or Jordanians or simply people who lived in a certain village) is a recent phenomenon. This doesn’t invalidate their identity, but it does indicate that the Palestinians themselves didn’t have a unanimous sense of who they were when the explicitly Zionist immigrants started arriving in the late 19th century to supplement the Jewish communities that have long abided there. You should read Prof. Rashid Khalidi’s book published in 1997 on the evolution of Palestinian national identity; unfortunately, Khalidi is not good on the evolution of Jewish national identity, but he’s THE authority on the Palestinians in this regard.

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